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Backup battle gearing up at U.

Trio of capable QBs shooting for No. 2 spot behind Johnson

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There's no question that, barring illness or injury, Brian Johnson will be Utah's starting quarterback when the season opens next week against Arizona.

The question is, who will be Johnson's backup?

That decision could come today after the team's final scrimmage prior to the Sept. 2 opener.

Three quarterbacks are vying for the backup position, which is perhaps the most stressful as well as the most frustrating position on the team. You have to be ready to play on a moment's notice, yet you may go all season without seeing any significant action.

Johnson knows that better than anyone after serving as the backup to Alex Smith last season and never getting anything more than mop-up duty.

JC transfer Brett Ratliff looks like the favorite for No. 2, after some solid outings last week, although another JC transfer, walk-on Danny Southwick, has improved greatly since spring ball. Freshman Kevin Dunn has had his moments.

Another quarterback, Oklahoma transfer Tommy Grady, entered the Ute QB picture Monday, but he must sit out this year and will likely quarterback the scout team.

The Ute coaches are feeling more comfortable with the quarterback position than a few months ago.

"I feel a lot better than I did in the spring when we had just one scholarship quarterback," said Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. "We've helped ourselves with quality depth. It's a good group."

"Brian Johnson is No. 1, no doubt about that, but the others are doing a nice job," said Ute head coach Kyle Whittingham.

Here's a look at the three backup candidates:

Brett Ratliff

Although he produced big numbers in high school and junior college, Ratliff was never recruited heavily. In high school, he averaged 250 yards passing per game, but that was overshadowed by his team's 1-9 record.

At Butte College, Ratliff was all-conference and set the school record for touchdown passes with 41. But he didn't get a lot of attention because he wasn't a mid-year transfer and needed to get his associate's degree. Because he wasn't able to join a college program winter semester like many JC players, most schools weren't willing to wait, but Utah was glad to be patient and take him in the fall.

Ratliff worked out in Salt Lake during the summer, but couldn't practice with the team for the first three days. His degree wasn't finalized because some work he made up wasn't seen by a teacher who went out of town.

That put him behind from the start, but he's been making up ground ever since.

"He's recovering rapidly after being out the first three days," said Ludwig. "He has the most experience. He is an excellent touch passer with quick feet and he shows a lot of poise."

Ratliff would like to move up to the No. 2 spot for the first game and go from there. He has no illusions about beating out Johnson, but wants to be ready to go.

"I think I've stepped up a lot in the scrimmages," he said. "People are starting to notice me now. But I still have a lot of room for improvement. I'm trying to stay positive and I'll just keep coming out and trying to earn it."

Danny Southwick

Southwick has endured a long and winding road to get to Utah after setting records for Timpview High in the late 1990s.

Highly touted out of high school, Southwick signed with BYU. It was a natural since offensive coordinator Norm Chow was one of his neighbors and he was well-acquainted with coach LaVell Edwards.

Southwick, whose birthday is in September, went right out on an LDS mission. But when he returned, both Chow and Edwards were gone and his uncle, Bret Engemann, was on the outs with coach Gary Crowton.

So Southwick looked elsewhere and signed with Oregon State and coach Dennis Erickson. However, one week after signing, Erickson left and was replaced by Mike Riley. Southwick liked Riley, but the new coach wanted to redshirt him, so he decided to transfer again and ended up at Dixie State College.

He played two years and won a lot of games in St. George, leading the Rebels to a 10-2 mark and No. 4 ranking in the country last year. Last winter he gave a call to Ludwig, who was happy to give him a shot.

"He's got a cannon for an arm," said Ludwig. "Danny is a hard-working guy. No one works as hard as him. He's made tremendous strides since last spring."

"We're all friends, but we're competing for a spot," Southwick said. "We all want a shot to get in the game."

No story about Southwick is complete without a line about his step-father, Larry King.

Southwick says he tries to keep his mother's marriage to the famous talk-show host "on the down-low," and said many of his teammates still don't know about it. But he says he enjoys spending time with King when he comes to Utah.

Kevin Dunn

An all-league and all-county player, Dunn set a school passing record with 3,332 yards. Schools such as Oregon and Montana recruited him, but he chose Utah because he felt so comfortable with the other players and coach Ludwig.

Ludwig says the likeable Dunn gets along well with his teammates and says he has a very strong arm and good speed.

"He can throw the deep ball, but needs to work on repetitive accuracy on short and intermediate passes," Ludwig said. "He needs to develop confidence in the system."

Dunn may be the quarterback of the future for Utah, but he's also the logical one to redshirt this year. However, Ludwig claims, whoever is second-best will be the backup, just as Johnson was last year, even though it might have made sense to redshirt him.

"Kevin started out like gangbusters, but has slowed down a little bit," Ludwig said.

Part of that may be because of a strain in his shoulder that has limited his reps.

Dunn is willing to redshirt, but says he has never discussed the possibility with his coaches.

"I'm going to give it my best and do whatever I can to help the team," Dunn said.

After experiencing the role last year, Johnson has this advice for his backups:

"Learn as much as you can. Remember you are only one play away from playing, just like Alex with Brett (Elliott) two years ago. You just have to be ready all the time," he said.

The future looks bright for the Utes at the quarterback position with all five QBs from this year's team returning in 2006.

"By this time next year we'll be really solidified at quarterback," said Whittingham.

Behind the scenes

A look at the quarterbacks vying to be Brian Johnson's backup:


6-4, 195

Age: 20 Class: Junior

Previously: Butte College

Of note: Set the school record at Butte for touchdown passes with 41.


6-2, 220

Age: 23 Class: Junior

Previously: BYU, Oregon State, Dixie State

Of note: Had 27 TDs as quarterback at Timpview High in Provo.


6-3, 216

Age: 18 Class: Freshman

Previously: Santa Barbara HS

Of note: Set his high school's passing record with 3,332 yards.

E-mail: sor@desnews.com